Book: The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories
Author: Angela Carter
Date of Publication: 1979
Type: Collection of Short Stories (176 Pages).
Despite the grovelling apology I attempted to make in my previous review, I have not compensated for the previous lack. I will now endeavour to do so, and thus shall all the hours of a single afternoon be whiled away manically typing on a slightly stiff set of keys.
Before I even begin to examine the complex mass that is The Bloody Chamber, I would first like to explain how I stumbled upon such a gem. It is an unfortunate truth that I don’t tend to read much “contemporary fiction”; though a handful of my favourite authors, are in fact, literary giants of the 20th century, my general tendency is to read books that predate the Victorians. I have an occasional flirtation with a Booker winner, should a copy come my way, but other than that, should my nose ever be “stuck in a book” (this in itself is a relatively rare occurrence), that book is usually firmly fixed in a century where internet cable and fresh milk are an impossible fantasy. However, there are two reasons why I decided to read this book.
The first is my longstanding love of mythology and folktales. Believe it or not, it is this fascination in such literature that has lead me to studying my fair share of Classical languages; tales of heroes navigating the depths of Hell, a Hell that contains three-headed dogs, or of talented youths with a flair for pest control via piccolo-playing, captured my imagination, and motivated my interest in learning the languages that these tales were written in. Hell, I even read several children’s retellings of such Greek myths, with a special mention going to Michael Cadnum’s Nightsong and Starfall, reinterpretations of Ovidian myth.
My interest in them hasn’t even abated in the least; quite the contrary, in fact. I hope to do some form of post-doctorate work on the inter-textual links between the folklore of different cultures and languages, but sadly, this is likely to be a pipe dream, so I will probably resign myself to eulogising, excessively, such literature on the internet instead.
The second reason for my curiosity is because it was recommended to me by someone who studied this in their Sixth Form English Class. Idiotically, this acquaintance of mine, who shall, through my bountiful mercy, remain anonymous for reasons that will become transparently obvious reasonably soon, enthused about these stories, describing it to me as one novella that was essentially “Sexy Red Riding Hood”, a terminology which I didn’t and still do not appreciate, not in the least because a) the book is a collection of short stories, of which The Bloody Chamber is a part, but not the whole, and b) The Bloody Chamber is obviously a reworking of the infamous Bluebeard lore, rather than Red Riding Hood. How incredibly awkward for both of us. At least, in his commendation of the work, his judgement doesn’t falter, even if it does everywhere else.
So, you are now probably going to ask me the next (fairly obvious) question: how did I find it? That is an incredibly easy question to answer: this collection of work is bloody fantastic, and I don’t mind saying it to anyone who is willing to listen. However, the question of why I liked it is a more difficult one to answer, not because of a lack of anything to say, but more like through the difficulty of trying to form my ideas and opinions into coherent thought patterns in a fairly concise way; I am sure that my dear readers would not particularly like a thesis on a fairly slim collection of writings. With this in mind, I shall make this a short(ish) piece homage, focusing on the novel’s superb language and imagery; the ingenuity of the reinterpretations; the successful exploration of the themes of Love, Betrayal, Liberation, and Belonging (to name a few); and the sheer breadth of its experimental diversity.
The Bloody Chamber is a collection of short stories loosely (very loosely) based on classic folklore and fairy tales. To summarise, The Bloody Chamber is a re-telling of Bluebeard; both The Courtship of Mr Lyon and The Tiger’s Bride are re-workings of Beauty and the Beast; Puss-in-Boots shares the same name as the folklore it is based on; whilst The Erl-King is based on the “erlkonig” of German folklore; The Snow Child is created from the Snow White tale; The Lady of The House of Love from the vampire legends; and the last three stories (The Werewolf, The Company of Wolves, Wolf-Alice), are re-interpretations of the werewolf and Red Riding Hood mythologies, drawing the two together in surprising and unexpected ways.
The first strength of The Bloody Chamber is its stellar use of language. Carter uses words like a sharp weapon, and her skill is so great that she can be trusted to cut right to the heart of her intent with her sentences. The words somehow manage to be stringed together into phrases, sentences, and paragraphs that combine into a wonderfully sensual piece of literature. The language used in The Bloody Chamber is so evocative that the words weigh on one’s tongue like clotted cream; and I mean this in a good way. The language creates such a vibrant and vivid image in the reader’s mind that one can easy visualise each scene: the appearance of the ”vampirella” as described in The Lady of the House of Love was both sensual and scary, especially with the description of her sharpened fangs; the intrepidity Red Riding Hood as she confronts the wolf in The Werewolf gives one a chilling sense of her almost psychopathic calmness, a feeling that is very much heightened by the later sequence of events; the description of Beauty’s skin as her human flesh slowly melts away, to be replaced with a tiger’s pelt in The Tiger’s Bride is vibrant and colourful, as one can almost feel one’s own skin peeling away in concordance with the narrator’s; and the tightly-packed adjectives and descriptive nouns all layered one atop of the other in the sketch of the forest in The Erl-King makes the reader feel as claustrophobic and trapped as the protagonist. These are but a few examples in which Carter uses a phenomenal attention to detail to construct a world that is startling and yet fascinating; and this ability is part of what makes The Bloody Chamber a work of incredible sensuality.
The descriptive paragraphs are especially enhanced by Carter’s mastery over imagery and contrasts, her use of which creates sensations that are not entirely comfortable, and yet not entirely unpleasant as well. The starkly bold language in The Snow Child makes no effort to soften the shock of the plotline, and the bluntness in the contrasting mentions of the blacks, reds, and whites in the narrative very much enhance the plot’s potency. Its starkness and abruptness add to its power, filling the story with pathos and shock. Equally, The Bloody Chamber ironically uses long descriptions (such as describing the lilies as dismembered arms, a foreshadowing of the protagonist’s future discoveries), and a long build-up of apprehension towards the dramatic revelation of what is behinf the locked door, to increase the terror and the tension within the narrative. This would be especially effective for fans of the Bluebeard legend, who, fully aware of what will follow, would be alternately pleading with the heroine not to indulge in her whim of curiosity, whilst secretly wishing her to go and look, just to see how the extent of her Sadist husband’s depravity and iniquity. In this respect, Carter doesn’t disappoint: the brutal description of the mutilations, flagellations, and defacements that the narrator sees the evidence of is seriously scary, and scarily mesmerizing. The reader is as incapable of stopping halfway through the story, as the heroine is from leaving the bloody chamber without finding out more. Carter’s repetitive use of certain words (such as the description of the oppressive presence of the lilies everywhere) and certain analogies also serves to add to the sense of claustrophobia, as in The Erl-King, and this sensation makes the reader feel as apprehensive and imprisoned as the bored and sexually-oppressed protagonist does. In using the examples of The Bloody Chamber and The Snow-Child, I hope to display, despite the inadequacies of my eloquence, the extent to which Carter has brilliantly used language and imagery.
Another merit of this work is how beautifully Carter’s original concept has been realised. Literature, to be objectively reviewed, has to be analysed in the two ways: its emotive appeal to the senses, and its technical brilliance. A bad book may have the former; a good book will certainly have the latter, but a great book should have both. However, within the second category, two questions should be posed: how original is the basic premise, and to what extent has this initial concept been effectively achieved? In the case of The Bloody Chamber, in which Carter claimed to be “drawing out the latent content from the original fairy tales”, Carter has proved herself to be a magnificent writer, as she writes with imagination and flair. Fairy tales come in many shapes and forms, from the sugar-coated and heavily edited ‘happily-ever-afters’ of the Disney tradition, to the darker and more “adult” folklore from the continent, which I grew up with (in which a girl with serious pigmentation issues and a predilection for eating staining red fruits, ended up being gang-raped and sexually tortured by seven lecherous and vertically challenged wood-dwellers, for example), and Carter has made a significant contribution to that literary tradition through her vibrant and colourful re-interpretations. Her manipulation of the material into stories that share the same basic storyline, and yet differ radically in tone, emphasis, and character is so skilful that, by the second story (The Courtship of Mr Lyon), I was genuinely looking forward to each individual tale, knowing that I would experience something achingly familiar, and yet startlingly new. I particularly enjoyed the contrasting stories of The Courtship of Mr Lyon and The Tiger’s Bride, both of which drew inspiration from the Beauty and the Beast folklore, and yet managed to differ so much in narrative tone, mood, and language, that the two stories became complementary halves of the same whole. The plot- twist of having Beauty becoming the Beast in The Tiger’s Bride instead of vice versa is especially noteworthy, and I appreciated the contrast that The Tiger’s Bride provided to the more traditional story arc of The Courtship of Mr Lyon.
Furthermore, Carter’s fresh interpretations of the classic fairy tales have allowed scope for a renewed study in the underlying age-old themes, themes that Carter experiments on with an almost radical playfulness. The themes of belonging, passion, trust and betrayal, and fear, are threaded into the bare canvas of the plot with a ruthless dexterity that is only matched by the colour and flamboyance that characterise the detail and language of the stories. I feel that Carter has been exceptionally successful in her exploration of humanity: the stories of Wolf-Alice, The Company of Wolves, and The Tiger’s Bride are fine showcases of how human appearance and humane behaviour are not necessarily mutually inclusive, and how one can find acceptance and belonging anywhere, regardless of appearance or creed. The fluid changes in form evident in all these stories are representative of a deeper, more disturbing fluidity within, through which it is impossible to judge others purely based on their appearances and their initial behaviour. The acknowledgement of such a troubling aspect of human nature, and Carter’s clever handling of it through her stories, is indicative of the calibre of this work, and of this author.
However, what I find most praiseworthy in Carter’s collection of tales is the sheer breadth and diversity of the writing. She leaps from the ominous gloom of The Lady of the House of Love to the playful insouciance of the insolent (and humorous) cat in Puss-in-Boots; she depicts with great relish the messy gore in The Bloody Chamber, whilst using sparingly describing the sparse starkness present in the landscape of The Snow Child; she simultaneously flirts with the concepts of rape and sexual liberation; she investigates the themes of sacrifice and love in one story whilst letting her narrator laconically recount instances of betrayal and treachery in the next. Carter has experimented dramatically in The Bloody Chamber, manipulating language, tone, mood, and even story length, in order to lambast the senses and provide a set of dizzying contrasts that would take a life-time and a lot of pluck to analyse properly. It is this diversity and bold experimentation that makes this such a joy to read, and such a work of Art in every way. It is the absolute range of themes, styles, and plots that proves Carter’s worth as a writer, and I for one cannot convey the extent of my admiration for it enough.
To conclude, The Bloody Chamber is, to me, all things to all people. Diverse, bold, outrageous, and shocking, it is all the more brilliant for all these traits, and should be read on that strength alone. Its language must also be lauded, as it is a roller-coaster ride through the land of sensual language and vibrant imagery. I thoroughly enjoyed reading it, and it thoroughly disturbed me on so many levels, but in nothing but a good way. It did what all great classics do: it took me far beyond my comfort-zone, and opened my eyes to a variety of experimental techniques and ideas that will stay with me for as long as I am literate. It is truly a work of genius, and one that I would strongly recommend to anyone with a heartbeat and a milligram of sense.